Video reporting and production by TAVLEEN SINGH
Article by MARGARITE CLAREY
There's not an empty chair to be found over lunchtime at the Lighthouse Café on Bourke Street.
Each day, more than 180 people, many of them experiencing homelessness, come in for food, coffee and community.
With more than one hundred tables spread across two rooms, the café is run by a team of volunteers from the Salvation Army's Project 614. Free of charge, the cafe serves three meals a day and is open to everyone.
At night the tables are pushed aside and the floor cleared to accommodate those who would otherwise be sleeping outside.
Lighthouse cafe manager Matthew Daniels said they provided a valuable service.
"Every week is homelessness week here," Mr Daniels said.
Mr Daniels said the number of people coming through the door each day had soared in recent years.
"When I started volunteering here 10 years ago, we mainly catered to men in their 40s and 50s, but now the range of people that come in is much broader."
This included women, young people and students who also used the cafe as a refuge, he said.
Of the 24,000 Victorians and 116,000 Australians who are homeless on any given night, one in four is aged below 25-years, according to the latest census data.
In just 10 years, youth homelessness has jumped by 43 per cent in Victoria and 26 per cent nation-wide, according to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare statistics. This includes more than 16,000 high school and university students who sleep rough.
Around one in five people who sought government assistance between 2017 and 2018 said the housing crisis was their main reason for seeking support, according to the institute.
Yet only one in three (29 percent) was given accommodation. They were housed for just 32 nights, on average.
Melbourne City Lord Mayor Sally Capp said more must be done to help the vulnerable.
"This year's Homelessness Week theme, Housing ends homelessness, underlines our main aim when working with people who are homeless – to give them somewhere to live," Ms Capp said.
"Services for people in crisis are important, but there's much more to do – ultimately, we need to get people into safe and secure long-term housing."
A crisis within a crisis
Homelessness Australia, a charity representing homelessness in Victoria, said despite a huge increase in the number of people seeking homeless services, federal-funding had not kept in-step with population growth and inflation.
The charity's chair Jenny Smith issued a statement, which read, "now is not the time to be doing less, in real terms".
"The situation is getting worse every day …. driven by the high and rising costs of private rentals and long social housing waitlists, creating bottlenecks in crisis accommodation," she said.
"People are living in accommodation intended for short-term relief for months or even years because there's no-where else to go, no exit point."
Mercedes, who did not want her surname published, said she reached a tipping point after her third, temporary community housing contract expired, leaving her back on the streets.
"I thought to myself, how is this happening again?," she said.
Mercedes, 35, has a tertiary-level education, but suffers from chronic pain and depression that she said made it hard for her to hold down work for longer than six months. She has been rough sleeping on and off for around five years.
"Now it feels like my home is on the streets – it's weird. I didn't think I'd reach that point, but I did," she said, as she ate lunch at the Lighthouse Café.
Mercedes said the stigma associated with homelessness had battered her confidence.
"I feel like I don't consider myself as someone that could have a house anymore."
Lighthouse cafe manager Matthew Daniels said Mercedes' feelings were common and the stigma associated with homelessness needed be countered by the message that it can happen to anyone.
"It is not that there is a certain type of person who can fall into homelessness, anyone can," he said.
Overcoming stigma is at the forefront of an "I am" art exhibition, which includes artwork by 15 young people who have experienced homelessness.
The creative showcase is organised by Wombat Housing & Support Services.
Executive officer Rebecca Cleavern said homelessness and a lack of affordable, stable accommodation options is one of the most significant issues confronting Australia today.
"We hope this exhibition raises awareness in our community and highlights that any person can experience homelessness."
Homelessness Week runs from August 6 - 12.